A closely divided Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for juvenile criminals on Tuesday, declaring there was a national consensus such executions were unconstitutionally cruel and ending a practice that had brought international condemnation.
The 5-4 decision, which overturns a 1989 high court ruling, throws out the death sentences of 72 murderers who committed their crimes as juveniles and bars states from seeking to execute others. Nineteen states had allowed death sentences for killers who committed their crimes when they were under 18.
The ruling was greeted with enthusiasm by numerous death penalty opponents, here and abroad.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said many juveniles lack maturity and intellectual development to understand the ramifications of their actions.
"The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood. It is, we conclude, the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest," Kennedy said.
The United States has stood almost alone in the world in officially sanctioning juvenile executions, a "stark reality" that can't be ignored, Kennedy wrote. Juvenile offenders have been put to death in recent years in only a few other countries, including Iran, Pakistan, China and Saudi Arabia.
"It is proper that we acknowledge the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty, resting in large part on the understanding that the instability and emotional imbalance of young people may often be a factor in the crime," Kennedy wrote.
In an angry dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia disputed that a "national consensus" exists and said the majority opinion was based on the "flimsiest of grounds." The appropriateness of capital punishment should be determined by individual states, not "the subjective views of five members of this court and like-minded foreigners," he wrote.
The ruling continues the court's practice of narrowing the scope of the death penalty, which it reinstated in 1976. Executions for those 15 and younger when they committed their crimes were outlawed in 1988. Three years ago, justices banned executions of the mentally retarded, citing a "national consensus" against executing a killer who may lack the intelligence to fully understand his crime.
In finding a similar consensus against juvenile executions, the court noted that most states bar them and those that allow them do so infrequently. Only three states - Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia - have executed people who committed crimes as juveniles in the past 10 years.
Legal experts said the ruling could have widespread ramifications for the future of capital punishment, with courts empowered to strike down the practice on evolving notions of decency.
"The lasting significance of this case is that it opens the door to the abolition of the death penalty judicially," said Jordan Steiker, a death penalty expert at the University of Texas law school. "If a national consensus can emerge without a majority of the death penalty states moving toward abolition, then it suggests that judicial abolition is a genuine prospect."
The impact was immediate. In Prince William County, Va., officials said Tuesday they will not prosecute a murder case against teen sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, who is already serving life in prison in two of the 10 sniper killings that terrorized the Washington area in 2002.
Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert had hoped to get the death penalty for Malvo, who was 17 at the time of the killings, but he said another trial would now be an unnecessary expense.
"Today, the court repudiated the misguided idea that the United States can pledge to leave no child behind while simultaneously exiling children to the death chamber," said William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
Former President Carter, along with several other Nobel Prize winners, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case last year. In a statement he said the ruling "acknowledges the profound inconsistency in prohibiting those under 18 years of age from voting, serving in the military or buying cigarettes, while allowing them to be sentenced to the ultimate punishment."
Dianne Clements, president of the Houston-based Justice for All victims' advocacy group, criticized the decision and said she hopes that when there is a Supreme Court vacancy a strong death penalty supporter is nominated.
"The Supreme Court has opened the door for more innocent people to suffer by 16- and 17-year-olds," she said. "I can't wait for the Supreme Court to have judges more concerned with American values, American statutes and American law than what the Europeans think."
Justices were called on to draw an age line for executions after Missouri's highest court overturned the death sentence given to Christopher Simmons, who was 17 when he kidnapped a neighbor, hog-tied her and threw her off a bridge in 1993. Prosecutors say he planned the burglary and killing of Shirley Crook and bragged that he could get away with it because of his age.
The four most liberal Supreme Court justices - John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer - had gone on record in 2002 opposing the death penalty for juveniles, calling it "shameful." Those four, joined by Kennedy, formed Tuesday's decision.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas joined Scalia in seeking to uphold the executions.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor filed a separate dissent, arguing that a blanket rule against juvenile executions was misguided. Case-by-case determinations of a young offenders' maturity is the better approach, she wrote.
"The court's analysis is premised on differences in the aggregate between juveniles and adults, which frequently do not hold true when comparing individuals," she said. "Chronological age is not an unfailing measure of psychological development, and common experience suggests that many 17-year-olds are more mature than the average young 'adult.'"
The 19 states that allow executions for people under age 18 are Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, Texas and Virginia.
The federal government does not execute juveniles.
The case is Roper v. Simmons, 03-633.
© The Associated Press